After a two-day delay, the National Arts Council (NAC), the regulatory body for the arts in Singapore, finally extended its congratulations to Sonny Liew. The latter had won 3 Eisner Awards on Saturday for his comic novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which was published in 2015.
The somewhat hesitant compliment was lambasted for its omission in mentioning the book, and for its self-serving promotion of a NAC event.
“What kind of lame, forced congratulations is this?” Nurzatiman Astha posted on the NAC’s Facebook page. “No link to any article, no tagging of the winner. Nothing. You want to congratulate someone, do it sincerely BODOH. And you have the nerve to slip in your own event promotion. Geez. Just rename yourself the National Selective Arts Council Singapore.”
The reaction is understandable, and rightly directed at the NAC.
The NAC had initially provided a $8,000 grant to the artist to develop the book, a retelling of Singapore’s (political) history through the eyes of a fictional character.
Later, however, the NAC withdrew the grant, claiming that the work did not meet the NAC’s “funding guidelines”.
The NAC said “the graphic novel potentially undermines the authority and legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions and thus breaches our funding guidelines.”
A NAC spokeswoman repeated the same reason to Reuters on Monday:
“A grant withdrawal is rare, and it was unfortunate that we had to take this course of action when Sonny’s novel was published. Sonny’s work, while of high artistic merit, breached our funding guidelines.”
Now that the novel has been around for 2 years and has won accolades in Singapore (it won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2016) and around the world, has the book “undermined” the “authority and legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions”, as the NAC claims?
Has the Lee Hsien Loong Government suffered from legitimacy since the book’s publication? Has any public institution been damaged in any way by The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye?
How has the “authority” of the Government been “undermined” since the publication of the book? Is the ruling People’s Action Party Government so fragile that despite its 50 years in power all it takes to “undermine” it is a comic book based on a fictional character?
Should we all be concerned that Singapore has such a weak government?
Is there even any sliver of evidence to the NAC’s claims? If there is, the NAC should provide it, so that Singaporeans can be convinced in such a serious matter. Surely, if the consequences of the book is as serious as the NAC claims, it has the duty to show Singaporeans that such books must not only be deprived of funding, the perpetrator-artist should also be arrested and charged for sedition!
Does not the Sedition Act stipulate that a seditious tendency is a tendency “to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the Government”, or “to raise discontent or disaffection amongst the citizens of Singapore or the residents in Singapore”?
To accuse Sonny Liew of sedition is, of course, ludicrous; and especially so when the NAC chairman, both past and present (Tommy Koh and Chan Heng Chee), had only in February urged Singaporeans to be “naysayers”, and for leaders to “think the unthinkable”.
In short, Singaporeans should not be afraid to be contrarian, to offer alternative viewpoints and to do so directly to the Government and its officials, the chairmen said. For the NAC to now claim that such alternative views, such as those in Sonny Liew’s book, are to be strangled out of official existence, is to speak with a forked tongue.
There is no evidence, not a shred, to prove what the NAC claimed – that The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye “undermines” the Government’s authority and legitimacy.
If Sonny Liew were as vindictive, unreasonable and irrational as those who lead the NAC, a defamation lawsuit might have been a serious consideration to debunk the NAC’s nonsense.
In fact, one would argue that it is the NAC’s paranoia which is undermining the authority and legitimacy of the Government and our public institutions.
Since the book’s publication, it is the NAC which has come under fire for obvious reasons – its stupidity in making those claims, without offering any crumb of evidence.
It is its ridiculous, unsubstantiated excuses in withdrawing funding from the book which has been the laughing stock of all right-thinking people everywhere. Indeed, the NAC has made itself a laughing stock of the arts world with its idiocy.
And that itself is quite an achievement for an “arts council”, even if it is well deserved.
Nah, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye and Sonny Liew did not undermine anything. On the contrary, it has made Singaporeans proud.
For the NAC to disavow such a brilliant piece of work is, make no mistake, tragic for Singapore.
The NAC could learn a lot from Sonny Liew if the regulatory body would only pull its head out of its rear. But that would require leaders who would, yes, think the unthinkable!